The second el derby Valenciano of the season ended all square on Saturday evening at the Mestalla. The game panned out as it would have been broadly expected to do so before it commenced. Valencia had much possession whilst Levante sought to retain shape and counter attack. The dramatic ending to the game would not have been foreseen and brought back immediate memories of Unai Emery’s time at the helm of Los Che.
Both sides made changes. Emery had to contend with Banega and Cissoko being suspended whilst regular central defenders Rami and Costa were out injured. With a midweek trip to PSG, Valverde was not going to take any chances with player fitness. Only Joao Pereira remained in the defence following the 2-2 draw with Real Zaragoza. Guaita replaced Alves in goal whilst Guardado moved to left back. Ruiz and Mathieu formed a makeshift central defensive pairing.
Juan Ignacio Martinez made three changes after the disappointing 2-0 home defeat to Osasuan, Munua replaced Navas in goal with Martins and Michel dropping to the bench to be replaced by Barkero and Aquafresca.
The first meeting of the sides back in October 2012, finished with a 1-0 victory to Levante with Obefami Martins scoring the only goal of the game. There has been speculation surrounding the future of Martins recently with a reported bid from Seattle Sounders of the MLS expected which would trigger his release clause. In the circumstances, Martins began life on the bench with reports of team mates questioning his commitment to the cause.
Levante entered this contest on a poor run of form that has seen them slide down towards mid-table despite increasingly impressive performances in Europe. With just four points gathered in the last seven fixtures, the opportunity of a return to European action next season is slowly disappearing. The side find themselves in 10th place but the possibility of finishing as lowly as 8th this season and retaining a European place should be sufficient motivation to improve form for the remainder of the season.
Valencia have seen their form and European aspirations turn around dramatically since the appointment of Ernesto Valverde in early December.
The influence of Valverde becomes more apparent in this Valencia side with each passing week. Under previous incumbents, Valencia were always more comfortable counter attacking despite the quality of player within their squad. Valencia never seemed entirely comfortable taking the game to the opponent with an element of reticence about who they were and the style of the side. Valverde is altering this.
Favouring a short based passing game with an emphasis upon sharp movement. Valencia has begun bringing the ball out from deep. Both goals resulted from short passing and good movement. Even with a completely unfamiliar defensive line up on Saturday, they continued this process. The team hold a high defensive line and attempt to press their opponents quickly when the concede possession.
That is not to suggest that the project has been without mistakes thus far. The 5-0 humiliation at home to Madrid when the tactician selected the wrong team and set up is evidence of this.
One area that Valverde must address is the left side of the attack.
For so long, Valencia have been string on their left side with the combination of Alba and Mathieu but the departure of Alba and injury to the Frenchman have adversely affected this side of the team. Replacements have not convinced entirely. Cissoko is the natural left back but Guardado, a converted winger, has often played there and is uneasy.
Further upfield, the problem is who should take the wide left position. Jonas and Canales have both been deployed here but cut infield too far as shown by Canales passing in the graphic below:-
Canales Passing Graphic
Canales moved across the entire pitch passing as did Jonas. Somebody has to hold the wide left position and offer width both tactical for attacking and defensive purposes.
Valerde wants inverted wingers but the full back needs to provide width. If Guardado is at full back, he is torn between his natural instinct to push forward and his defensive duties. This contrasts sharply with the right where Feghouli cuts inside and Pereira offers width on the overlap.
The graphic below shows the Valencia action areas:-
Action Areas Graphic
In the final third of the pitch, Valencia were far stronger on the right with over 7% of their total play in this area compared with just over 3% on the left. Both Valencia goals arrived following build up play on the right handside with Feghouli involved to a degree in both aided by Pereira pushing forward from right back. There may have been some luck about the first from Jonas following good play by Parejo but the second from Soldado displayed superb technique.
The Levante Approach
Valencia dominated this game recording 59% possession to Levante 41%. This would not perturb Martinez in the away technical area in the slightest. Levante average just 36% possession across the entire season and have built their success upon a sound defence and the continued skill of discovering a rapid lone striker in each season to score goals.
On Saturday, the formula continued.
Levante dropped back to a 4-4-1-1 formation in the defensive phase with Barkero operating behind Aquafresca. The side dropped off and only pressed Valencia as Los Che entered their territory. The defensive and midfield lines remained close together and presented little space for Valencia to manoeuvre.
The graphic below shows the interceptions which Levante made during the game:-
Almost all interceptions occurred in their own half. Levante are not interested in pressing an opponent when they lose possession in the opposing half. They simply drop off and regain their shape. It’s a tactic that becomes more prevalent with each season.
Strong with set pieces as ever, the opening goal arrived via a header from Iborra which looped over Guaita following a Juanfran throw in.
The equalising goal in the 88th minute followed another long throw in. Barkero ran off Albelda and as he entered the penalty area, Mathieu slipped allowing the Levante man a clean strike at goal.
Despite the wholesale changes in philosophy that Valencia have undergone, it was the sae old Los Che. The concession of a late equalising goal was a speciality under Emery. The side are involved in a four way fight for the final Champions League qualification spot which appears to have the ability to last until the end of the season.
Valencia has the players and the experience to make sure that position is theirs. They have to show that on the pitch.
They dominated this game but failed to find the elusive third goal. There was an element of misfortune. Soldado had a goal wrongly disallowed and struck the crossbar with a shot. On the whole though, Valencia should have had this game finished.
Given the run of form they are on, Levante will happily accept a point but they must begin collecting three points quickly if they have aspirations of Europe next season. Forthcoming games against Getafe, Granada and Sevilla are all eminently winnable and points must be gathered.